It's no secret that Europeans enjoy new ways to tax people - if they can tell you they are doing it for your own good, so much the better.

I often hear arguments that start with phrases like "If we we can save even one life doing ( insert your pet cause here), it's worth it" but is there a limit to how much society wants to spend to save a life?

A study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health says the UK could save the lives of 3,200 people if they taxed more foods. Things like chocolate, ice cream, and most drinks are already charged a 17.5% VAT ( that's Value Added Tax - the value is in paying more ) so in their numerical study they simply extended the tax to more foods.

In the first model, they added it to foods high in saturated fats such as butter and cheese.

Next they added it to foods with an "SSCg3d" score of greater than 9. If you aren't familiar with SSCg3d it might be because it's rather arcane. They measure the 'healthiness' of a food by totalling its calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat and subtracting from that its calcium, iron, fatty acids and a somewhat nebulous 'fruit and vegetable' content.

The first table of SSCg3d. Get the whole thing at

This is only a good solution to politicians since a food high in sodium yet also high in calcium is somehow okay for you and if you believe the risk in eating too much sugar is identical to the risk of eating too much salt, you probably need an IQ test, yet this measure says they are equivalent.

In the last scenario, they included every food that would lower fat, salt, and sugar intake overall.

In scenario one, taxing saturated fats, they found salt intake would increase, as would strokes and heart disease, and costs went up 3.2%. Bad on both counts.

Scenario two prevented 2300 deaths a year and added 4% to weekly food bills, they said.

Scenario three, basically taxing everything except spinach, boosted costs by 4.6%, or £0.67 per person per week and saved 3200 deaths per year, a drop of 1.7% by their figures.

First, is it remotely possible that each person in the UK only spends $20 per week on food? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) disagrees. They state that the price for groceries in the UK is up 4.9% in just the last year, a 5X increase over even France, which is hardly considered a low-cost culinary destination.

A study by a student life group says even living "cheap" can't be done for under £30 per week, over $50. Even knocking off 25% if you live in a low income area, it's nowhere near $20. If they can't even get this basic number correct, the entire study has to be considered more advocacy than science.

Even if that increase were true, I don't know when these folks doing the study last bought "health food" but it is not cheaper than regular food, yet somehow they felt like adding 17.5% to all those food categories ( mitigating their purchase ) would only add 4.6% to total costs. If the Brits already eat so healthy that a 17.5% in bad food adds less than 5% to their total cost, how are 188,000 of them dying each year from heart attacks and strokes that this study claims would not occur if this tax were enabled?

Well, would they occur? I can't compare apples to apples for the whole UK because they don't seem to publish results that way, unlike this study, but I can find numbers for England separately.

So let's just take England and assume the increased cost is still valid. Using a round number like 60,000,000 for population, 3200 people that may or may not die anyway will cost just over $28,000 per life saved. Keep in mind, these are people dying from heart disease and stroke induced by eating foods that are basically horrible for you, not old age or accident.

Is $28,000 per life a good amount? It may well be, though this does not mean they won't incur health care costs which are already at 9% of their GDP. Not dying does not mean people with atrocious dietary habits will not have a higher average cost for health care but any number I make would be a guess because even I can't predict how long someone will live.

But if every life is important, why not go after cars instead of food? Automobile accidents cause 3,000 fatalities and 267,000 injuries per year, according to the Audit Commission, and the cost to the NHS alone is almost $800 million, plus another $14 billion to the economy because of productivity sacrificed.

Lowering the speed limit to 5 miles per hour would eliminate virtually every one of those deaths and save more than enough costs to pay for healthier food. Of course, the productivity lost would be a lot higher than $14 billion but if we save even one life it's worth it, right?